I remember the Boston Marathon bombings as if they were yesterday. I was early in my professional career and had been asked to be in New York City that day by my new company so I could give a short speech during a customer event. I was a little frustrated to not be in Boston that day because Marathon Day is actually a work holiday in Boston called Patriots’ Day. Many people take the day off to watch the marathon, and being a Back Bay resident myself just a few blocks from the finish line, I likely would have done the same. Aside from that, it was like any other day, and I went to the airport after the event was over ready to go home just like any of the other countless times I have had to travel for work in my sales career.
While I was waiting in the security line at LaGuardia Airport, I got a notification that bombs had gone off at the Boston Marathon finish line. My heart sank immediately, worrying about what was going on. God forbid I knew anyone who might be injured, like my father who worked downtown, or any of my friends spectating or running in the race.
A ground halt at Logan Airport meant I sat on the tarmac for hours watching news coverage of what was going on back home. The chaos and confusion was horrifying. Nobody knew who had perpetrated the attacks and immediately there were various theories being shared about who might be responsible. As someone who lived only a few blocks away, I felt guilty about not being there. Maybe I would have been there and maybe I would have been a victim had I been home that day; but maybe I also would have been able to try to help out. I felt guilty for not being there.
We eventually took off and when I got to my neighborhood, I had to show my ID to police officers to prove to them that I lived in the neighborhood. It was unclear if other pressure cookers were in trash cans waiting to be detonated, and there was an eerie feeling walking around my empty street not knowing if the killers might be around or if their bombs might lay in waiting. I lived on Newbury Street at the time, which is usually the most popular street in Boston – especially on marathon day. And it was closed for days, completely empty and roped off for police investigation as authorities kicked off a manhunt to find those who were responsible for the senseless killing of innocents.
The ensuing week in Boston was chilling. The killers were at-large for several days, and in addition to the three innocent lives they took on marathon day, they killed an MIT police officer and plotted to continue their attacks in New York City. Hundreds of people were injured. The term “Boston Strong” was coined to reflect the mentality of the city for rallying around one another and picking each other up. Eventually, the bombers were spotted in Watertown where an intense skirmish occurred between them and the local police. One of the brothers was killed in that skirmish, and the other was eventually found bloodied in a nearby boat where he had written a manifesto explaining his actions.
The manifesto detailed a viewpoint that the United States had unfriendly attitudes towards Muslims and that it had embarked on wars abroad that specifically targeted Muslims. It was a perspective that, in a vacuum, many people might agree with. There are many Americans who disapprove of our military intervention abroad and who believe that we have an Islamophobic culture. But absolutely nobody supported the Tsarnaev brothers, and it does not warrant explanation to say why that is, but I will say so anyway: they had committed a pre-meditated act of terror against innocent people all under the guise of their proclaimed belief system and a feeling of being wronged. There were no fundraisers for their legal defense, no petitions appealing to the senses of the judge to release a young person who had made a grave mistake. Universally, everyone agreed that these people were criminals who deserved to be punished. Whether you were a future Trump supporter or a future Bernie supporter or a future Biden supporter, you had one thing in common: you did not like the Tsarnaev brothers, even if you sympathized with them in any way for their anti-American political views.
Fast forward to today. Recently, a Princeton classmate of mine was arrested for alleged involvement in building Molotov cocktails and firebombing a police vehicle. Let me state the obvious, first: this is obviously not the same thing as detonating pressure cookers that were designed to kill many innocent people. I have no idea what his intentions were and whether or not he had grander visions of doing harm to officers.
Since the arrest, many people I know (mostly fellow classmates) have organized fundraisers and petitions in support of this individual. None of these fundraisers or petitions condemn firebombing police vehicles, violence towards police, or really violent and stupid actions in general. All that they do is glorify the individual for the person he is outside of the stupid mistake that he made and suggest that the charges against him must be racist.
All the while, in Las Vegas, three white men who built and conspired to distribute Molotov cocktails were arrested and are facing similar charges. One notable difference between the two cases, however, is that the men in Vegas did not end up using their weapons.
All this to say, firebombing a police vehicle has always been and continues to be what is considered an act of domestic terrorism. That was the case when the Tsarnaev brothers detonated pressure cookers in a crowded area, and regardless of the intention of the perpetrators, that is still the case today when a firebomb is thrown into a police vehicle at a crowded protest, where collateral damage can include hurting or killing police officers trying to restore order and the same for innocent bystanders who are protesting peacefully.
There was a time when we could have ideological alignment with individuals and not support their worst mistakes. It is possible, for example, to be anti-racism and to still uphold the value of not acting violently. It is possible to believe that police brutality is an issue in the United States but that trying to maim or injure innocent police officers is unjustified. If we start to go down the rabbit hole that violence or destruction of property is justified when we have ideological differences with people, there will be no end, because there is no arbiter of truth to say who is right and who is wrong. It opens up the Pandora’s Box of never-ending violence and chaos because we have conviction that morally and ethically we are on the right side of history.
It feels today like we are in the Woke Olympics: you are either on the right side of history or the wrong side of history, and there are no bounds to this. If someone on the “right” side of history commits a felony, it is justified. If you so much as explain your nuanced position as to why you detest racism but why you disagree with firebombing as a practice, you are now on the “wrong” side. You are not woke enough. There is no shallow end in this pool: you either dive in completely, or you do not get in at all.
Myself and a few other classmates explained our hesitation with some of what has been going on with all of this. Even though one of us is a black man, we were shouted down as being “privileged white men” by a few people. Consider that: having a position about abiding by the law and not committing what is classified as an act of domestic terrorism means you must lack empathy due to your skin color. It divorces a legitimate opinion from reality and insists that it must be grounded in immutable traits about the believer of said policy. Keep in mind, these are the same people who are angry about armed men intimidating government officials non-violently. How about this for intellectual consistency: I don’t approve of those men either, and I do not hesitate to say that I believe they would have received far worse treatment had they been black men. I apply my morals about violence and intimidation to members of the political left and to members of the political right, whether they are white or black.
What is particularly troubling about that encounter is that of the four of us who shared our views, one is a black man. And as we were being shouted down as white men for voicing our opinion, his voice was seemingly ignored for convenience since it did not fit a certain narrative. His belief was that it was actually insulting to the black community that people were supporting the criminal activity. Who is the real racist, then: the person who ignores a black voice since it does not align with what said (white) person thinks a black person ought to think for themself, or the people who suggest that social justice causes might be better-received if we do not celebrate criminal activity?
When you call out someone for being a man in a conversation about race, what are you actually doing except playing by the identity politics playbook? Why does gender even matter in a conversation about race, if for nothing else than to seemingly play the victim card by suggesting that being a woman somehow makes one more aligned with the black community in the hierarchy of oppression? And how offensive is it to black people – especially black women – who undoubtedly suffer much more than white women, when white women try to use their own oppression to suggest that they are incapable of being bigoted themselves?
This is what we are up against today when trying to have rational dialogue. It is like walking on eggshells. If you do not emphatically support every single thing about what is happening right now, you are a bigot. When someone commits a violent crime that would otherwise be criminal under any other circumstance and you do not align with it, you are a bigot. I am scared to think how far this goes, and whether this support would continue had my classmate hurt or killed somebody. Robert Tracinski says it best:
“The only cause served by this is totalitarianism. If you are for violence as a means of achieving political change, then you are not against the abuse of power. You are only against its abuse by somebody other than you.
That this view should be promoted and acted upon by trained lawyers, with the apparent sympathy of many of their colleagues, is what should really alarm us.
Because if even lawyers don’t believe in the rule of law any more, who does?”
Of course, the intense partisanship we see today extends to both sides of the political spectrum. I recently became entangled in a conversation with some far-right Trump supporters who were trying to make an argument that they should not have to wear a mask during the pandemic, and that masks were ineffective. These people chant “My body, my choice,” but also scoff when pro-choice women make similar claims. These are the same people who have no problem abiding by the law to wear clothes in public, to wear seatbelts to protect themselves and others, to abide by a speed limit to protect themselves and others, and who agree not to smoke cigarettes inside of a restaurant so as not to harm others by way of second-hand smoke. While more than 99% of the medical community and an unlimited amount of data suggest that masks are effective, these ‘my body, my choice’ supporters cite sources from websites that might give your computer a disease with conspiracy theories about how masks actually make you more sick. All of this in the name of supporting Donald Trump – who himself refuses to wear a mask – and to downplay everything going on with the pandemic, all for the sake of ensuring that Trump might be re-elected.
I actually think these people are far crazier than anyone else. My friends on the left resort to logic predicated on race, gender, etc. to skirt around discourse, and their hearts, I believe, are in the right place even if their thinking problematically and wrongfully assumes the intentions of others. The same cannot be said for those who want to walk around every day actively participating in the spread of a disease that kills people. On one side, there is an abundance of sensitivity and on the other, there is a complete lack of sensitivity. If made to choose, I would have to pick the side that at least seems to care about the well-being of others.
The reason I find partisanship so challenging is because it affects how we treat others with whom we disagree. If I am having a conversation with someone and in the course of that conversation, I find that the individual is intellectually consistent, I am much more willing to listen and find their viewpoint credible even when I disagree with them. A good example of this is with Joe Biden and “Believe All Women.” I am not a big fan of Bernie Sanders or his supporters, but I found that many of my friends who were in the “Believe All Women” camp remained in that camp even when allegations surfaced against Biden. To the average Sanders supporter, Biden is not very exciting, but he is lightyears better than Trump. So to see them upholding their position was refreshing. And it was refreshing because they remained consistent, not necessarily because they were right or wrong.
It is much harder to take people seriously or even to grow or learn from their point of view when there is never-ending hypocrisy in the way they form their positions. For example, if you believe in due process for a classmate who firebombed a NYPD vehicle where there is evidence of guilt, then you should believe in due process for Supreme Court justices who have assault allegations levied at them from decades ago. If you believe all women who come forward with rape or assault allegations, then you ought to believe them even when the allegations are made against your presidential candidate of choice. For the record, Joe Biden is who I am going to be voting for this fall. But I also held a stance in favor of due process with regards to Brett Kavanaugh.
In the interest of trying to lead by example, I will gladly share a time where I thought I had my mind made up and was convinced to change it. I used to not be in support of universal healthcare. I associated the idea with all of my most progressive friends who unequivocally support Bernie Sanders. But after seeing some expert research (yes, provided by people who I often butt heads with), I decided to change my opinion. I now believe that healthcare is a fundamental right, and that your wealth or status should not impact your ability to have access to healthcare.
It is impossible to have a conversation any more with too many people because nobody wants to give an inch. Ironically, it is by giving an inch (in my opinion at least) that makes people worthy of respect. When I hear someone giving a nuanced and balanced perspective on something, my immediate reaction in most cases is “This person sounds like they have really thought about this.”
Where does that leave the people who want to think? Many people reached out to me privately for speaking up about my displeasure with the tacit support of alleged criminal behavior. But they had to do so privately because they were too scared to say something publicly and be torn apart by the angry mob. That is the real horror of this situation — that people are too scared to even engage in dialogue. Unfortunately, it seems that those who want to think will only be able to do so privately, for fear of setting off angry mobs who are all-too-eager to tell you why you think the way that you do. And if that is where we are heading, partisanship will be the death of us first far before COVID-19 or systemic racism, because without dialogue, we can only have violence.